The beards go where we go!

aN aU­Di­ENCE WiTH BillY giB­BONS As the ZZ Top front­man pre­pares to un­leash his sec­ond solo al­bum, he re­flects on for­ma­tive years with Roky and Jimi, his love of rap and the per­ils of bring­ing live­stock on tour

UNCUT - - In­stant Karma - in­ter­view by sam richards

LAST night, ZZ Top rocked Lin­coln, Ne­braska. To­mor­row they will head­line a bal­loon fes­ti­val in Ohio. To­day they are in geo­graph­i­cal limbo “some­where in the Mid­west”. Yet de­spite his band’s po­ten­tially ex­haust­ing sched­ule – ZZ Top ap­pear to have been tour­ing non-stop since 1969 and now claim to be the long­est-serv­ing ma­jor rock band still com­prised of orig­i­nal mem­bers – Billy Gib­bons’ leg­endary lust for life is still very much in ev­i­dence. In fact, he’s risen early to wres­tle gamely with your queries, be­fore get­ting down to work in a mo­bile stu­dio cur­rently be­ing as­sem­bled in a ho­tel meet­ing room. Gib­bons is work­ing up a new song for the live it­er­a­tion of his up­com­ing solo al­bum, The Big Bad

Blues – a re­in­state­ment of first prin­ci­ples af­ter his pre­vi­ous Afro-Cuban ex­cur­sion, Per­fec­ta­mundo.

What is it about the blues that still ex­cites him af­ter all this time? “Well, there’s some­thing to be said about the in­ter­est­ing res­o­nance that ex­ists within this ex­otic art­form,” he of­fers. “Some peo­ple may say, ‘Oh, it’s blues, a sim­ple three-chord thing.’ Well, on one hand, yes it is. But on fur­ther in­spec­tion, there’s a com­plex level of so­phis­ti­ca­tion.”

You could say the same about Gib­bons him­self: on one level, he’s a stead­fast pur­veyor of glo­ri­ously ba­sic boo­gie rock about cars and girls; on an­other, he’s an eru­dite and cos­mopoli­tan art lover with a height­ened sense of irony and an im­pres­sive col­lec­tion of African tribal arte­facts. Both as­pects of the Gib­bons psy­che are fully ex­plored over the next hour or so. “I’ve gotta say thanks for some of these quite thought­pro­vok­ing ques­tions,” says Gib­bons after­wards. “You got me lit up!”

What did you learn from watch­ing Chuck Berry and Bo Did­dley at close quar­ters? Mark An­der­son, Hast­ings

The word that would best an­swer that is ‘feel­ing’. Any­body can grab an in­stru­ment and start slam­ming three chords, but with­out the feel­ing it’s an­ti­sep­tic. One of the first pay­ing gigs ZZ Top were hired to do was back­ing Chuck and Bo. We had some fast and fancy foot­work to con­duct, learn­ing all their ma­te­rial. On the first day, we said, “At what time do we get to­gether to re­hearse?” And they laughed and said, “There is no time!” They ex­pected to you know ev­ery­thing. So we dug deep and we be­came fa­mil­iar very quickly. In­ter­est­ing would be one way to look at it. Fright­en­ing would be an­other…

Your first band, The Mov­ing Side­walks, were con­tem­po­raries of the 13th Floor El­e­va­tors. What was Roky Erick­son like, and what made you aban­don psychedelia in favour of the blues? Rory South­land, via email

Roky was an in­tense guy. His sing­ing was ma­ni­a­cal, out of this world. The Mov­ing Side­walks and the El­e­va­tors shared a house down in Texas. The jug player Tommy Hall was the in­ter­nal philoso­pher – he was bring­ing in mind­sets and styles of think­ing from far and away, and it all played into some in­tense mes­sag­ing through their recorded ma­te­rial. But though the El­e­va­tors were con­sid­ered the premier psychedelic act, they used to do ver­sions of Bo Did­dley tunes, Buddy Holly tunes, James Brown songs. That bluesy el­e­ment was con­stantly present.

Do you re­mem­ber any spe­cial ad­vice that Jimi Hen­drix gave you when you hung out to­gether in 1968? Louis van Em­pel, Nether­lands

Yes. He said, “Learn to play like Jeff Beck!” The take­away that we got from Jimi was watch­ing him con­stantly im­port­ing and re­vis­ing and learn­ing. He was on a nev­erend­ing search, and I found that quite in­struc­tive. He took the Stra­to­caster to places the de­sign­ers never imag­ined. Off­stage he was soft-spo­ken and down­right shy. But let him loose on the stage and he was a pow­er­ful go-get­ter.

How did you get the re­cur­ring role of An­gela Mon­tene­gro’s rather in­tim­i­dat­ing fa­ther in the TV se­ries Bones? Mar­garet Pikesley, Cheshire

The pro­gramme devel­oper was a gen­tle­man by the name of Hart Han­son, who hap­pens to be a big fan of mu­sic. Our first meet­ing was just a chance to shoot the breeze. Af­ter the first en­counter he said, “Have you had act­ing lessons? You’re quite good at do­ing this. If you don’t mind, let’s make a go of it.” It turned out to be a match made in heaven and my role lasted the en­tire 12 sea­sons. I met An­gela [Michaela

Con­lin]’s real dad. He was quite a charm­ing fel­low, and he said, “I’ve been watch­ing you on this pro­gramme and I’d prob­a­bly have pre­ferred to have been more like you when I was rais­ing her!”

Did you have any prob­lems with the an­i­mals you brought on your World­wide Texas Tour in 1976? Ed Bai­z­ley, Soli­hull

If there were any com­plaints, it was that the an­i­mals were treated bet­ter than the band or crew. It was an in­ter­est­ing menagerie. We had a trained longhorn steer, a real live Amer­i­can plains buf­falo, two black turkey buz­zards and a box full of rat­tlesnakes. It was quite the zoo out there on the road. The only time there was some fussi­ness was when the buf­falo broke loose one af­ter­noon. We were play­ing in a ma­jor league base­ball field in Pitts­burgh. Af­ter about half an hour of chas­ing this buf­falo around the field, we fi­nally calmed him down and got him back into his nice air-con­di­tioned trailer, but the next day there was a base­ball game and the play­ers were com­plain­ing be­cause the buf­falo had stomped in div­ots in the field.

Is it true you once gave Prince a cus­tomised gui­tar? And have you ever tried to play any Prince songs live? Craig Grant, via email

Af­ter a chance en­counter with Prince in New York, we re­mained in touch and ex­changed a few in­stru­ments. He was fas­ci­nated by gui­tars from the ’50s and I had quite a col­lec­tion of early Gib­sons and Fend­ers. I was in­vited to the film­ing of Pur­ple Rain and he had one of his cloud gui­tars ly­ing about, a pearles­cent yel­low. He was like, “Sure, have a go.” As strik­ing as it looked, that crazy in­stru­ment was playable. Later, I asked him what he could tell me that would make at­tempt­ing to learn the open­ing to “When Doves Cry” eas­ier. And he laughed and said, “You know, it was just one of those ex­pres­sions that oc­cured in the stu­dio – I don’t know if I could play it again my­self!”

Are there any typ­i­cally Eng­lish traits you think you’ve in­her­ited from your grand­par­ents? Han­nah Green­away, Har­ro­gate

Cer­tainly… the love of an af­ter­noon tea. I rarely miss the op­por­tu­nity to fire up the ket­tle and get a brew go­ing.

How did you ac­quire your cur­rent head­gear? Carlo De­la­fonte, via email

Ah! We were tour­ing Europe and had the lux­ury of a 14-day break from the sched­ule. I de­cided to re­main in Vi­enna and the Warn­ers rep there was a charm­ing young lady who was best friends with the Aus­trian con­sul to Cameroon. There was a diplo­matic jun­ket or­gan­ised and as a re­sult I was in­vited to Cameroon. I showed up in a cow­boy hat and boots. As we were stand­ing in the re­ceiv­ing line, the lo­cal chief strolled up and said, “I like the hat!” I got the el­bow in the ribs to in­di­cate I should give him my hat. I said, “Well, wait a minute, Chief. I’m from Texas, and we’re known to do a lit­tle horse-trad­ing.” His peo­ple came scam­per­ing back with this beau­ti­ful, dread­lock-look­ing hat called an ashetu, so we made the trade.

Paulo, via email I love the fact that “I Got­sta Get Paid” is a cover of a clas­sic Hous­ton rap tune. How did you get into hip-hop?

Back in the mid-’90s, the ZZ Top stu­dio was get­ting a facelift, so we took refuge up the street at John Moran’s Dig­i­tal Ser­vices, home to some of the great­est hip-hop and R&B artists of the day. Beyoncé got her start there, Scar­face and Bush­wick Bill of the Geto Boys, the list goes on. There was Stu­dio Left and Stu­dio Right and in the cen­tre was the lounge, which be­came a meet­ing point. There were some lively ex­changes on any given af­ter­noon. I was fas­ci­nated with how they came up with break­beats and they wanted to ex­plore the world of bluesy gui­tars, so it was a ram­bunc­tious col­li­sion. The friend­ship has re­mained in­tact. I got to know Ice Cube and some of the West Coast guys. Hip-hop is a re­ally in­trigu­ing ex­ten­sion of the form.

When did you re­alise the beards would be a great mar­ket­ing tool? Martin Praed, Northamp­ton

The beards were a di­rect re­sult of one sin­gle, soli­tary word: lazi­ness! We’d taken a break from tour­ing and just aban­doned the daily chore of trim­ming the whiskers. Af­ter we re­sumed our day-to­day busi­ness, we’d all sprouted rather im­pres­sive bri­ars and bram­bles, so we just left it alone. It be­came a trade­mark. The beards go where we go! How do I feel now that big beards are main­stream? Well, we can walk down the street with­out be­ing thought of as es­capees from a Western film set or a group of religious nuts. It’s a lit­tle eas­ier at the shop­ping mall.

Do you still sleep on ho­tel floors? Ben Maier, via email

Oh yes. It pro­vides a bit of so­lid­ity in the topsy-turvy world of tour­ing. We pre­fer fur­nish­ings that have 90-de­gree an­gles. The cir­cu­lar stuff has very lit­tle def­i­ni­tion. When you step into a nice squared-off room, you’ve got some mea­sure of ref­er­ence.

The Big Bad Blues is re­leased Septem­ber 21 by Snake­farm Records

(Be­low) Gib­bons with his ’Top Cameroo­nian ashetu head gear, 2016

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